At the Allison Inn & Spa, Chef Jack Strong of Siletz explores local foods
Chef Jack Strong loves finding stories more than he loves cooking. Strong spent much of his career fascinated by certain ingredients, sharing their histories at the dining table as dishes arrived before diners.
When he worked at Kaye — the restaurant inside the Sheraton Grand Hotel at Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Arizona — that story came in the form of pumpkin soup. The soup, made with squash grown by the Gila River tribes, arrived with a mash of Rio Zapi beans, a bean grown by indigenous people in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, especially the Hopi and Zuni tribes. It arrived covered in cotton candy, representing the Pima cotton grown by the Gila River tribes. “At Kay, I learned how to tell stories through food,” Strong says, sitting at a window table inside Jory’s restaurant, the Allison Inn in Newburgh. “I tell stories because people connect with where the food comes from.”
For many years, I delved into the indigenous foods of the American Southwest, co-authoring a cookbook New Native American Cuisine He received a James Beard Award semifinalist nod for his work on Kay. But Strong is not from the Southwest. In fact, he grew up in Oregon, as a member of the Siletz tribe. Now, as executive chef at the Allison Inn, he focuses on the indigenous foodways of the Pacific Northwest, sharing stories along the way.
Strong grew up on the Oregon coast in Siletz, a fishing community and reservation, with his grandparents. He spent his childhood watching his grandmother hand-cut noodles for chicken soup and catch trout and steelhead on the Siletz River. However, much of the food he ate was not fresh, an experience common to many young children growing up on reservations. “We had canned meats and cheese and powdered milk and all those things that end up on reservations — food commodities,” he says. “So I had to learn how to use simple cuts of meat or canned vegetables at an early age.”
As a high school student, Strong began working at the Embarcadero in nearby Newport and also worked at a nearby seafood shack. He spent his time gutting fish, catching cod directly from fishermen overlooking the bay for both companies. In 1994, he went to Eugene to attend a culinary program at Lane Community College, where he met chef Adam Bernstein, owner of the now-closed Adam’s Place restaurant in Eugene. Bernstein became his mentor and collaborator for the better part of a decade. “I worked my way through each station and became his co-executive chef,” Strong says. “He took me around the country, to Seattle, to New Orleans, to New York, just to learn about and learn about the industry.”
After spending his life in Oregon, Strong took a family trip to the Grand Canyon and fell in love with the American Southwest, landing a job at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale.
While working there, he received a call that changed his life. The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass was looking for a chef for its restaurant Kai, specifically to feature local cuisine. At the time, due to the United States’ systematic dismantling of indigenous food systems and a lack of capital and investment in indigenous-owned businesses, the country was home to very few indigenous or Native American restaurants — and certainly not those in well-financed resorts. Owamni — the much-anticipated Minneapolis restaurant from chef Sean Sherman, aka Sioux Chef — only opened in 2021, and several other restaurants have opened in the country over the past decade. “They said, ‘Hey, there’s an opportunity to be a chef on this Native American-owned property on the reservation, and it’s got to be local food,'” he says. “I was like, what is this?” “It was a dream job in many ways.”
At Kai, immerse yourself deeply in local foods by sourcing ingredients. He used squash and beans from farmers from the Gila River tribes, used buffalo to make rice, made confit from heirloom tomatoes, roasted elk chops, and smoked corn for mash. The restaurant has received awards, including AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star ratings; In 2008, Strong was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for his work there. But he resists taking too much credit for the restaurant’s success. “We wanted to attract more talented people,” he says. “When I was honored by the James Beard’s for Best Chef: Southwest nomination, it was because the team was so great.”
For the next fifteen years, Strong spent his time traveling back and forth between the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, sticking to resort hotels. Most notably, he returned to the Oregon Coast to work at Chinook Winds, the casino and hotel owned by his tribe. His grandmother’s health began to deteriorate, and he wanted to stay close to his family. He spent seven years learning how to manage a large-scale estate and reconnecting with his culture—honing the language of his tribe, Siletz Dee-ni, and hosting captives. “I took pride in the community, where one of our own was the executive chef,” he says. After his grandmother died, he returned to Arizona, spending two years in downtown Phoenix as head chef at Renaissance and two years at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa in Paradise Valley.
And when he returned to Oregon in 2022, he didn’t have a specific plan — he’d been away from his family for three years, during the pandemic, and returned to the Oregon Coast to be closer to them and figure it out. His next step. He came to the Allison Inn in August of that year for a reunion meal with his longtime mentor Bernstein. “I had no idea I (would become) a chef at the time,” he says. “Just being here was so calming, and coming home was so nice. I wanted to go back to Oregon, but this had to be the right situation.” The right situation emerged soon after, and Strong began his work at the Allison Inn in that autumn.
During his first year, Strong followed the same steps he did at Kay: focusing on the people around him. The chef has worked to grow the existing team at Gorey, honing their talents — he built his relationship with longtime chef Andrew Toombs, another Oregon-raised chef, and hired John Morales, another Marriott alumnus, to be his executive sous chef. . By building those relationships, he was also able to reacquaint himself with the seasonality of the region. Allison Inn’s head gardener, Anna Ashby, worked closely with Strong while developing the menus, letting the garden inspire him. “I really like that he focuses on things that grow in the Americas,” Ashby says. “The things he tells me to grow grow well here.”
“For me, local foods speak to place,” Strong says. “And for my tribe, there’s a lot of seafood, a lot of shellfish; in Arizona, there’s a lot of seeds and fruits and beans that can handle the heat, like tepary beans. Seasonality tends to that in our garden.”
Likewise, he reacquainted himself with the components around him, and found stories that spoke to him. For example, the restaurant uses Fort Klamath sturgeon, which arrives very fresh and is still squirming as it is cut; Pacific Northwest tribes have eaten sturgeon for centuries, though it remains a relatively rare item on Oregon restaurant menus. A foraging company based in Yamhill supplies Allison with Oregon mushrooms, which appear in a variety of dishes — inside ravioli, served with beans from the garden. And of course, oysters and seafood play a major role on the menu, a tribute to Strong’s heritage. In the spring, mussels arrive at the table along with smoked sturgeon, squash and venison sausages. In the fall, mussels and sturgeon are put into fish soup. “Mussels, oysters, any kind of shellfish are important to our tribe,” he says. “So we highlighted them.”
Now that he’s settled, Strong is able to delve deeper into Indigenous dinners and cooking. In October, he consulted with the Northwest Native Chamber at its annual meeting, working with Vibrant Table to design a menu that included things like a special bison tartare, tribal-caught salmon with pumpkin seeds and tepari beans, and toast topped with white beans and elderberries. . During that process, he discovered that Duan Lin, a Yakama descendant and member of the Northwest Native Chamber, had grown his own Ozette potatoes, the oldest variety of potato grown in the Pacific Northwest. He used it in a dish for that dinner — a potato cobb with smoked salmon salad — but he also kept that connection in his own dinners at Alison’s, a celebration of first foods with Indigenous winemakers and wine masters.
The dinner, held on November 16, was an exploration of the first foods of the Americas, which included things like squash, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and beans. While early foods are the focus, the meal has moved naturally through time, beginning with a focus on pre-contact foods and then incorporating post-colonial foods.
“Everyone has a different perspective when it comes to indigenous foods,” Strong says. “Right now, there are some prominent chefs who are leaning more toward decolonization — their focus is on foods that are all pre-contacted, so it’s all heirloom, native to the Americas. That’s part of history.”
Similar to the way the meal has traveled through time, the dinner also encompassed a broad geographic scope, using the traditional foods of tribes throughout the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and the Americas as a whole. For example, the meal began with Olympia oysters, topped with a water gel from heirloom tomatoes saved from the summer crop in the garden. The garden also supplied peppers that arrived with the oysters, which were pickled to preserve them. Tomatoes and chili peppers were important to indigenous people across South America; Oysters are an essential part of the diet of many indigenous people around the world, including the Pacific Northwest.
The bison dish, on the other hand, was a nod to Strong’s time in Arizona, where he used bean stew in bison tenderloin. Ramona Farms, owned by a farmer with O’odham roots, grew the beans for this dish, which Strong paired with bison chorizo and spruce tip dust—a little touch of the Pacific Northwest, thrown in for good measure. “The tenderloin bison is not northwest, but it is very native to the Americas; at the same time, the spruce head is quite northwest. “It’s kind of my style. I like to play by setting and then by story.
Duane Lane’s Ozette potatoes are featured in a dish with duck sausage and berries, and also include purple potatoes for chimichurri. This symbolizes Strong’s goals for the coming years: to continue building those relationships and finding those stories, both on and above the ground. “I love collaborating and meeting new people,” he says. “It’s important for me to come home. This is where I belong.”
The Allison Inn & Spa is located at 2525 Allison Lane in Newburgh.